Monday, December 15, 2014

Life In the Pissant Swamp: Slackers of the Student World Unite and Take Over

There are a zillion stories in the Pissant Swamp.
This is one of them.

Once upon a time I taught courses at UAardvark. UAardvark is a state university, one of four research universities in the MegaStateUniversity system of the Northeast United States. UAardvark fancies itself a first class research university but in reality is and always will be a third class American research university in the same class as Ball State University or Kent State University. At UAardvark I taught courses in Cultural Anthropology, History, and Communication. The course I taught in the last, The Idiot Box: The History of Television, had proven quite popular with Communication students and beyond though as time went on the ability of non-Communication majors to take the class diminished.

Because of the popularity of my TV course I was asked by the Journalism programme to do a course on Non-Fiction Television. I agreed to do the class. In retrospect this was one of the worst decisions I ever made in the course of my academic life. I was not prepared for Journalism students, Journalism students who had trouble making sense of the syllabus, Journalism students who had difficulty figuring out that in a class of 100 total points 20 points was the same as 20%, Journalism students who proved to be rude and threatening when I told them something about the Canadian health care system that conflicted with what they had probably heard from some right wing American radio demagogue, and Journalism students who thought that a Twitter post was the future of journalism. The future of journalism 140 characters may be but that doesn’t mean that barely skimming the surface journalism is good journalism. All in all my experience teaching Journalism at UAardvark convinced me that if social media journalism is the future of journalism than good riddance to it. Don't worry dear readers and unreaders, I do realise that UAardvark is hardly the first or last word on Journalism Education in the United States.

But back to my sad tale: Long story short some of these rude students complained about my supposed lack of clarity when it came to what was expected in class. I was called on the carpet by the English Department of which the Journalism programme was a part. I was able to show that everything the complaining students said I didn't tell them was contained in the syllabus for the class which they had apparently not read or not been able to, for some reason, make sense of. I taught the same class in the spring term though it was as dismal as the class I taught in the fall. Controversies surrounding my Journalism sojourn also affected my employment in the Communication Department. I was called on the carpet in that department as well because, according to the Departmental Chair, some students had complained about me. Many of these complaints were similar to those of the Journalism students. Some claimed the syllabus was unclear and that the electronic component to the class was confusing.

The fundamental problem in both cases was that the students did not read or did not comprehend what they read in my syllabus. Additionally, students, who surprisingly at least to me, were largely computer illiterate had great trouble accessing the Blackboard components of the course. I put up all my lectures on Blackboard. I put up links to assigned TV shows students had to watch on Blackboard. I put up discussions on Blackboard that I had to use the carrot and stick to get students to engage in. I had students submit assignments on Blackboard. For whatever reason--they didn't expect a traditional class to have a tech component?--the electronic component to the course which I thought would make the course easier and more interactive, made it harder and more less interactive.

There are several things I have learned in my thirty plus years of teaching. Lesson one: in general students don't read or watch the assigned material before class discussion. When students don't read the material they were supposed to in order to prepare for class discussion the class doesn't work as well as when they do. One has to wonder why these students are in college. Lesson two: students have difficulty navigating electronic components to a course be it Blackboard or Blogger. This observation, by the way, has relevance for what is happening in cash strapped higher education today which sees high tech as its salvation, is that computer components of courses are no replacement for traditional face-to-face classes. In the past, as I noted, I have used high tech in class quite extensively. Currently I use Blackboard sparingly, basically for collecting assignments. Even with the sparing use of Blackboard students still complain and some have actually asked me to return to the old collect the papers in class ways. The problems associated with on-line teaching, by the way, is a lesson I don't expect higher education to learn. It is too "cost effective" to them. Lesson three: students resist referring to the syllabus. Whether I have students read the syllabus on their own, whether I read large chunks of it in class, or whether I have the students affirm that they read the syllabus, students throughout the course of the term ask me questions that are answered in the syllabus. It makes one wonder why faculty even bother to spend hours writing the syllabus. Whether these problems are the product of laziness--when asked why slippers had become prominent attire on campus many students said the reason they wore them was not because some celebrity wore them in public but that they wore them because they were lazy--and technological illiteracy--students are cell phone not computer literate (a variation on the laziness theme?)--and/or something elses, all of these are problems in the contemporary college classroom. They also suggest that the slacker do it for me culture has a strong foothold in the culture of contemporary youth. Lesson three: Part-timers like myself have no job security, a conclusion that is perhaps the least surprising of all these lessons. I was offered another class in Communication conditionally but since I thought I was being treated unfairly I didn't accept the conditions and moved on. When I inquired about whether my services were wanted by Communication in the future I was told that the department was not hiring at the moment, a polite corparatese way of saying piss off. I did. I had no choice.

I know dear readers and unreaders, you are thinking that I wouldn't get in such trouble if I just became a yes man, if I strived to become miss congeniality, and if I just did what I was told. But I can't. That is not who I am or who I will ever be. I guess I am fated in life to be a dissident wherever I go. I blame it on the first book my mum ever bought me and made me read. This book opened up an intellectual horizon for me that continues today. It is an intellectual horizon that doesn't confuse what is with what things should always be. It made me eventually, in other words, into a social and cultural constructionist who realises that much of what is, is the product of power.

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is coincidental.

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